Ethan Hawke On ‘Fishpriest,’ Working Nonstop, And Drawing Inspiration From Paul Newman

For Ethan Hawke, the opportunity to work within the bounds of an Audible Original with the freshly released Fishpriest [you can listen to the series here] checked a few boxes. For one, as the actor told us recently during the following wide-ranging conversation, it was a strike in his own personal battle against the pandemic, with him, the other voice actors, and the creative team coming together on the project despite the production limitations that have made it harder to make art over these last few years. It’s also an opportunity for him to, again, play a cop (or former cop, in this case) trapped in a complex situation in a story within a genre with which he has great affection.

“I grew up loving French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Prince Of The City, all those cool crime fiction pieces, Richard Price. This is all aspiring to live in that kind of milieu,” Hawke said after recalling how the New York of this project connects to a time when he first came to the city in the early ’90s, sparking sense memories in addition to recollections of his time doing ride alongs in New York in preparation for Training Day.

This project is also yet another job for someone who works near ceaselessly, and so we spoke about the motivation to do so much work, whether it be an audio project, writing another novel, creating a graphic novel, or his upcoming docuseries focused on the life, marriage, and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. That series, in particular, dominates the latter part of our conversation as we discuss the inspiration found in Newman’s astonishing third-act dominance and how Hawke sees his own career at this point in his life.

A lot of things attempt to be in this [crime fiction] space, and I’m sure a lot of them cross your desk too. What is it about this project that specifically made you want to do this?

I’ve never done this form of storytelling before. I’m a storyteller and I like to do plays and write books and I’ve written graphic novels and made documentaries — just the whole experience of telling a story. And one of the things that is wonderful about reading a book is it asks so much of you. Like if the book says, “Bodega, 1991, New York City.” Your brain has to do a lot of the work. Your brain becomes a cinematographer. Sunset, what does it smell like? What does it sound like? And in a movie, they do all that for you. And so oftentimes, you don’t like the way they did it. They didn’t do it real.

One of the things that’s super hard about reading scripts and deciding what movies to do and everything is, well, the best version of most scripts is pretty damn good. It’s just, your brain as a reader creates the best version of it. It casts the guy behind the cash register at the bodega perfect. The way you really see it. But often directors and casting, they get it wrong. And they screw the movie up, and the movie isn’t any good. And what I love about this — in the old days they’d call it a radio play. It asks a lot of you, but by asking a lot of you as a listener, it gives a lot to you, because you’re engaged in the experience yourself. You’re an artist in it, with it, making it as it goes.

And so many modern movies just do everything for you. They tell you exactly how to feel, and when. They tell you exactly what’s a good moment. What’s not a good moment. It doesn’t leave any space for you to enter. The way that if you or I were to read, I don’t know, Anna Karenina, or pick a book you love, you have to provide a lot of the imagination. And so, just as a storyteller, I was turned on by trying like, “What is this medium like?” As a kid, I remember hearing about Orson Welles, reading War of the Worlds, and people thinking Martians really were attacking. And so, I don’t know, could you create a sense of realism just from a vocal performance?

Hawke Audible Recording

You’ve played cops that are dirty or that are in this space before. What is the fascination for you to go back to play those characters again? And also what is it about our continuing fascination with them?

Well, one of the reasons why I think people like superhero movies is they like to goose life. Our lives seem so daily and dull and your imagination wants to goose life, make it better than it is. And the wonderful thing about cops is their lives are extremely dramatic. They’re faced with these moral quandaries, but they’re just ordinary people intersecting with other ordinary people. People who run a bodega, people who are trying to put their sister through a diabetes center by slinging drugs.

You hear these words thrown around like diversity and social justice, but cops, it’s in the DNA of the storyline that they’re touching all walks. They deal with rich people and they deal with the homeless and they deal with everybody in between. And the story of their lives naturally is ripe with so much of the stuff of life, politics without being political. Their lives are so interesting. It allows you to talk about real human beings in a way with a heightened drama. Did that make sense? Awfully long-winded.

No, it did. It’s interesting though, that this is a character who’s obviously trying to claw his way back to a certain extent. It’s a very human kind of failing that we see, I think all too often. Especially in pop culture, we see a lot of cops that are crossing over that grey moral line. You are right. It does touch on so many different aspects of life.

Playing them is really interesting. And I mean, like even a show like The Wire, they just touch so much life, the pulse of life. And I think that’s what appeals. I always loved Richard Price. Clockers. It’s hard to do well. It’s damn hard to do well, because the world is just full of poor cop dramas.

I do a lot of these and it’s rare that I come away just like, “I don’t even know which project to ask about first.” There’s just so much. You work so much. Do you take time off? What is it that drives you to keep going and going?

It’s a really good question. I think, I’m really lucky that I have an intrinsic love of my job that makes it so interesting to me over and over again. I mean I loved working on The Northman. Working on Robert Eggers’ Viking epic is so different than working on Scott Derrickson’s Black Phone, but they’re both rigorous artists of the medium that they’re trying to do. And it makes my job new for me every time.

I did this documentary over the last couple of years about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And studying my profession from a journalistic way was completely new for me. Connected. I mean, obviously, it’s studying the life of actors. That’s something I know about, but trying to be a journalist, it was new for me. And trying to do the Marvel Universe [with Moon Knight], trying to live inside that genre, then acting gets new because it’s like something that would be not funny in a normal movie is kind of funny in a Marvel movie.

You have to understand the same is true of the horror genre or a romance. Each genre of storytelling has its own math. And learning that math and trying to be a better storyteller all the time, I just love it. And so, I do work a lot and I don’t really understand it. [Laughs] I have the same thoughts sometimes. I’m like, “Why don’t I take a vacation?” My wife always says to me, “We never had a honeymoon.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, we haven’t.” But this seems to make me so happy.

Northman Hawke

In terms of your ambition, how has it changed as far as like when you were starting your career? Obviously, the roles are different. The challenges are different. You’re getting to do more things, obviously.

Well, I remember when I was younger, I worked with this old Canadian Shakespearean actor. And he was working really hard. It was getting harder and harder for him to learn his lines and he was so good. He was just so deep and interesting and thoughtful and insightful. And I said, “So why do you still do this?” And he said, “One lifetime is not enough.” You know? It’s just not enough.

It keeps being interesting and you get to work with talented people. I mean, take a weird movie, like Black Phone. I got to do all this mask work. I’d never done that before. And this artist who made the mask was a genius and he had this idea that what if the mask wasn’t the same? And sometimes you see the top half of his face and sometimes you see the bottom. And we started devising in what ways would that unlock the story? It’s like something I’d never done before. It was so interesting. Or working in a sci-fi genre like with Moon Knight, thinking about the ways that Phillip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut would tease your brain. And how we could utilize that thought energy inside the Marvel Universe.

The word ambition is kind of fascinating because when I was younger, I definitely had goals and those kind of superficial goals have disappeared for me. I just enjoy the doing of it. And I try not to think about what’s going to happen with it because, invariably, all that goes away anyway. Time, we’re all building sandcastles, right?

It’s just trying to be a part of your time and talk and communicate. And it was so rewarding to do Good Lord Bird and tell the story of John Brown right in the middle of what was happening with George Floyd. And see the connection between the Civil War and what’s happening now. And the division in the country. And part of our job as the artistic community is just to be conversation starters.

This will run counter to what you just said, but the latter third of Newman’s career — he didn’t let up. Obviously, you’re not there yet [in terms of that later stage], but actors do start to fall down the call sheet a little bit as time goes on. You’re not the name of the poster. Maybe certain people aren’t willing to take as many chances on you. Newman is such a unicorn in the sense of not having that happen. [With that in mind] is there a sense of urgency in you to go bigger in terms of just taking a bigger slice of the pie for you creatively?

There are so many interesting questions inside that statement. There’s so much to think about there. Newman is a unicorn. What I was hypnotized by with him is when you picture him falling in love with acting in class with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, who’s in his acting class? Oh, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Geraldine Page. These people who changed my profession. But a lot of them, if you look at his male counterparts, they really burnt out. Monty Clift, James Dean, Brando. And Newman continued to be a leader. And the thing I’m most hypnotized by about his career is, yes, I love Cool Hand Luke, yes, I love Hud. Yes, The Hustler is one of my favorite movies. But it’s really The Verdict, Color Of Money, Road To Perdition, Nobody’s Fool, Hudsucker Proxy. You’re like, “Wait, who is this guy?”

I mean, there he was at the end of his life working with top tier, not just filmmakers, not making hit movies. He’s working with artists. He’s working with Scorsese and Sidney Lumet and Joel Ethan Coen and Sam Mendes. Or Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, James Ivory. That movie’s a masterpiece. I mean, is it bigger? No, but is it bigger in the sense of that level of difficulty, what they’re trying to communicate artistically? Yeah, it is. In the beginning of his career, he was constantly compared to a Brando wannabe. And then at the end, it’s almost a story of the tortoise and the hare, isn’t it? One took off and fell asleep by a tree because it got bored with how easy it was. And the other just slowly plotted along and created this 50-year masterpiece.

And so, I do think about it. And you do fall down in the call sheet. You start playing bad guys, you start playing dads. But I look to Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges or Donald Sutherland or Jason Robards. And I see a lane in which you could contribute in a heavy way without all the accouterments of superficial perceived success. It might be a better lane.

I just read a New Yorker interview with Elizabeth Moss where she was talking about actors specifically, not wanting to give away too much of themselves. You’ve been around for so long. And I’m sure you’ve done so many of these interviews. Do you ever want to not give away too much of yourself in fear that it might be a distraction when people see you on screen?

I read that interview. I think she’s really smart and really impressive. I thought a lot about it and I know that what she’s saying is true. I know for me, I’ve more bought into the idea of aspiring to live a really boring life and make your art extraordinary. And if you live an insanely boring life, there is no secret. They can’t learn anything. The human experience is so deep and complex and profound. Things that were true about me 15 years ago aren’t true anymore. I’m a different person. I don’t worry about secrets and giving them away or not giving them away.

There’s a great Allen Ginsberg quote that I read years ago that changed my outlook on interviews. Which is he said, “More people will read these interviews and see what I’m putting forward into the world through these interviews is just as important as the art I make. Because if my goal is to connect with other human beings and to be a part of a collective conscious dialogue, these interviews are an opportunity to not just sell something, but to have an exchange.” And so, I just try to take it seriously and then not think too much about it and let it go.

‘Fishpriest’ is available to listen to on Audible here